Kitchen safety question! I dropped a mercury thermometer and I am freaking out!
November 9, 2012 5:16 PM   Subscribe

Help! I dropped a candy thermometer! Details inside!

I broke a candy thermometer. It shattered and mercury came out. On the other side of the kitchen was butter, eggs, and yeast, among other ingredients for a recipe I was in the process of making. I have no doors in my kitchen but I do have great ventilation and a huge window. I followed state protocol for cleaning up mercury - it was a relatively small amount, probably an eighth or quarter of a teaspoon. Can I keep baking or must I throw out my ingredients? Has this ever happened to you - and if so what did you do?
posted by auiricle to Food & Drink (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd probably toss them... but I'm basing that purely on paranoia not on any training.
posted by LittleMy at 5:18 PM on November 9, 2012

With mercury it is the vapors that are most dangerous. Personally I would have no issues using/eating the foods on the other side of the room.
posted by Captain_Science at 5:34 PM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sweep it up and go on with your life. Mercury basically doesn't evaporate into the air.
posted by rhizome at 5:45 PM on November 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Another vote for the ingredients are fine. Sweep up the broken glass and spilled mercury, wash your hands well and continue cooking.
posted by easily confused at 5:55 PM on November 9, 2012

So, you're worried that some vapour may have come off the mercury, blown across the kitchen, and contaminated the food? That would be a ludicrously small amount, from a thermometer's worth of mercury cleaned up promptly. You'd get more mercury from eating a can of tuna.

As I understand it, the reason to be serious about mercury clean-up is not so much the immediate exposure as the danger of chronic exposure. That is, it's not going to do much in the time it takes to clean up, but you want to get to it before it dribbles through to somewhere inaccessible where it can emit mercury vapours for an extended time. But even then, with a thermometer you're looking at maybe 0.5ml of mercury. It's not a lot.

I have previously broken a mercury thermometer, when I was a kid. It was in my mouth at the time and I swallowed the mercury. No noticeable harm then or since, though it's not an experiment I'd like to repeat.
posted by pont at 5:56 PM on November 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

A million years ago, as a grade school kid, I broke a mercury thermometer and "harvested" the dime-sized silver blob as a toy, carrying it around in a small pill vial. I probably played with it daily for a month or so, rolling it around in my palm, smashing it into tiny droplets and then watching it come together again. The only bad result -- the teacher caught me playing with it in class and I caught heck. And she confiscated it.

This is not a recommendation, of course, but just anecdata from the days before anyone understood that the stuff was supposed to be dangerous. Finish your baking. You are in no danger.
posted by peakcomm at 6:00 PM on November 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm not going to link to the USA Environmental Protection Agency page for cleaning up a broken mercury thermometer.

Waay overboard. As others have mentioned, the bioavailability of elemental mercury is pretty darn low. Most problems with mercury are from long term chronic exposure.

Sweep it up with a paper towel, plastic bag it, and if you're feeling really conscientious take it to your local fire station for proper disposal.
posted by porpoise at 6:09 PM on November 9, 2012

One of the more dangerous things you can do is vacuum the droplets. Vacuums are pretty great at vaporizing the mercury and spewing it out into the room. So don't use a vacuum.
posted by ryanrs at 7:10 PM on November 9, 2012

My mother, when she was a student nurse circa 1960, frequently got to play with mercury from broken thermometers. They would roll it around in the palm of their hand. She's still going!

It's good to be cautious, but I wouldn't worry about this incident.
posted by Packed Lunch at 7:23 PM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I dropped and broke a mercury thermometer a few years ago. I called the local poison control in a bit of a panic and was assured that all I had to do was sweep it all up. I don't recall if I was given any specific disposal instructions but I don't think I had to do anything out of the ordinary. Call your local poison control hotline for specifics in your case.
posted by Room 641-A at 8:17 PM on November 9, 2012

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